JUNEAU -- House leaders propose extending the life of the state's utility regulatory agency for at least two years while an independent panel studies the way it does its job.
The House Finance Committee approved a bill on Monday to do that in the first day of a special session called by Gov. Tony Knowles.
Knowles called lawmakers back to Juneau to consider a measure to extend the sunset period for the Regulatory Commission of Alaska.
The commission regulates electric companies, sewer and water utilities and the state's telephone services. The term of the agency is set to expire June 30 and it will then enter a one-year wind-down period.
Criticism from some of those utilities, such as Alaska Commun-ications Services, prompted a core group in the Senate to block a measure to extend the commission for another four years.
A bill heard before the House Finance Committee would extend the sunset date of the regulatory agency until June 30, 2004.
It also would create a panel that would issue recommendations by Oct. 31, 2003, on ways to ease a backlog of cases before the agency and make other improvements.
It also sets tighter deadlines for the five-member commission to resolve utility issues. Commission chair Nan Thompson called the proposal ''very workable.''
But some Senate Republicans have insisted the agency undergo intense scrutiny before the Legislature reauthorizes the agency.
''The focus and the attention does not come to bear until you look at a reauthorization. Because then they have something to lose in the fight too,'' said Senate Judiciary Chair Robin Taylor, R-Wrangell.
Taylor said he wants to allow the agency to enter its so-called wind-down period and allow the next Legislature to take up the issue.
''Because then they have something to lose in the fight too,'' he said.
Knowles introduced a bill in the Senate on Monday that would reauthorize the commission until June 30, 2006. That measure is expected to come before the Senate Judiciary Committee at 10 a.m. Tuesday.
Lawmakers have billed the reauthorization bill as a ''phone war'' between ACS -- the state's largest local telephone service -- and its nearest competitor General Communications Inc.
The two companies squared off during a day of testimony before the House Finance Committee. ACS President Wes Carson urged lawmakers to not reauthorize the agency and accused it of bias against his company.
ACS has received a number of adverse rulings from the commission, including a key case to determine how much it can charge GCI for access to its lines, Carson said.
At the same time, the commission has agreed with GCI more than 80 percent of the time in cases that its heard since July 1999, Carson said.
Carson complained that because of regulatory decisions, his company must provide access to its lines to competitors below the cost of maintaining its service.
Thompson denied charges of bias and said that each regulatory commission decision is made by at least three commissioners.
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